My Take: Does Netanyahu's Bible gift to Obama mean war?
U.S. President Barack Obama and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu at the White House this week.
March 8th, 2012
09:12 AM ET

My Take: Does Netanyahu's Bible gift to Obama mean war?

Editor's Note: Stephen Prothero, a Boston University religion scholar and author of "God is Not One: The Eight Rival Religions that Run the World," is a regular CNN Belief Blog contributor.

By Stephen Prothero, Special to CNN

Being president is stressful. Even the presents you receive can turn your hair gray.

Take the gift Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu bestowed upon President Obama on Monday: a copy of the Book of Esther. This book, which appears both in the Hebrew Bible and the Christian Old Testament tells a tale that Jews commemorate on Thursday with the holiday of Purim.

In this tale, set in the Persian Empire in the 5th century BCE, Persians plot to destroy the Jews. The villain of the story is Haman, whom Netanyahu described in his AIPAC speech on Monday as “a Persian anti-Semite [who] tried to annihilate the Jewish people.” The hero is Esther’s cousin Mordecai, who urges Esther, the queen to Persian king Ahasuerus, to prevail upon her husband on behalf of the Jews.

In the end, Ahasuerus, who initially supported the evildoers, flip-flops, allowing the Jews to go to war against their Persian enemies. The Jews are victorious and 75,000 Persians are killed in an orgy of “slaughter and destruction.”

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It’s not hard to imagine how Netanyahu wants Obama to read this ancient story. Iran’s President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad is Haman, threatening Israel with destruction by a nuclear bomb. Netanyahu is Mordecai. And Obama is King Ahasuerus who needs to decide whose side he is really on.

But this isn’t the only way to read the story.

I was in Jerusalem on the eve of Purim a couple years ago. It's a raucous celebration that commemorates the events of the Book of Esther. I say raucous because it is actually a commandment during this joyous holiday to drink to excess. Jews are supposed to drink until they cannot distinguish between the evil Haman and the virtuous Mordecai.

In a Purim sermon I heard at the Wailing Wall, an Orthodox rabbi spoke of driving into the city every day through an Arab section, and greeting the Muslims he saw there not with fear and anxiety but with love and joy. He then urged his listeners to drink of wine and God until they could not tell the difference enemies and friends, Arabs and Israelis, the cursed Haman and the blessed Mordecai.

So perhaps the Book of Esther is telling Obama to play the king, to give the Jews a green light to destroy their Iranian enemies, and lay waste to 75,000 Iranians in the process.

But perhaps this Bible story is telling the president to see beyond the virtues of the Israelis and the vices of the Iranians to the common humanity in all of us — to drink until he cannot tell the difference between our enemies and our friends.

It is up to the president to decide how to read this story, and how to read the mixture of intelligence and nonsense that is emerging out of Iran and the Middle East in recent days. Will he listen to Republican presidential candidates who are beating the drums of war? To Netanyahu, who seems to be doing the same? To the Israeli public, which is wary of a strike on Iran's nuclear facilities?

In times like these, prior presidents have turned to God in prayer. But one curiosity of the Book of Esther is that it does not mention God. In extreme times, the story seems to be telling us, we cannot wait for God to act. We must act ourselves, or refuse to act. And in either case we and we alone bear the intended (and unintended) consequences.

The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Stephen Prothero.

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Filed under: Barack Obama • Bible • Iran • Israel • Middle East • Obama • Politics • United States

soundoff (470 Responses)
  1. Islamisbad

    So many anti-semites........so little time. You fools! Nobody escapes a nuclear bomb, no matter how far away. Just wait until Turkey wants one, or two or 1000.

    March 8, 2012 at 2:43 pm |
    • William Demuth

      You do know we have blown up over a hundred of them in the past and we are all still here.

      Sure an exchange between Israel and Iran would kill off a few million, but we have so many zealots on this planet that no one would even notice.

      It might impact the cost of gas and falaffel for a while, but I am willing to make that sacrifice so I might watch the fireworks on CNN.

      March 8, 2012 at 3:19 pm |
    • Skeptical

      Be anxious to do nothing.

      March 8, 2012 at 4:13 pm |
    • To Sum it up

      ... and I thought your blogging name is Islamabad... lolol

      April 18, 2012 at 3:41 pm |
  2. Olaf Big

    ...or perhaps the guy who wrote this has an unstoppable verbal diarrhea?

    March 8, 2012 at 2:32 pm |
  3. Chuckles

    I love Purim, it's a great holiday, one in the many holidays of "they tried to kill us, they didn't, we won, lets eat and get wasted". I mean, sure, Netanyahu could have been nudging and winking to Obama about what he and Israel wants to do except that.... oh yeah, it's Purim so it's not out of the blue and Netanyahu has already made it pretty obvious without Purim that he wants to kill Ahmedinajhad and be done with it.

    Instead of trying to interpret what Netanyahu meant by giving Obama the story of Purim, why not just get wasted, eat some homintashen and curse that evil, evil Haman.... where's my groger when I need one.

    March 8, 2012 at 2:25 pm |
  4. Skeptical

    I think the situation is that Israel wants an excuss to attack Iran and is using this nuclear thing as the excuse. I think there is room for negotiation with Iran. Past predictions of Iran becoming a nuclear state have not held true. Why should we believe these new accusations when the UN hasn't confirmed a need for attack.

    March 8, 2012 at 2:24 pm |
    • Thinker23

      Can you explain the possible reason Israel would be willing to attack a country having TEN TIMES larger population and EIGHTY TIMES larger territory than Israel that is located THOUSANDS OF KILOMETERS away from Israel? Use your imagination...

      March 8, 2012 at 2:57 pm |
    • William Demuth


      Israel, from a perspective of infantry and armor tactics could fight for quite a while.

      One big kaboom and they are all in the ocean or dead.

      March 8, 2012 at 3:34 pm |
  5. mamasita

    who cares about israel? not my problem...we need to deal with our own mess and fix things in the usa....let's hope one day the us will stop funding israel

    March 8, 2012 at 2:23 pm |
    • sam

      Not going to happen, not with the number of jews we have in congress.

      March 8, 2012 at 2:29 pm |
    • Center Of The Universe

      Another selfish American.
      We all share one planet.
      You only care about the line you drew in the sand.
      A threat to any one nation, is a threat to us all.
      Its a global economy, if that goes, we all go.
      Time to stand up for Earth, not just your patch of it.

      March 8, 2012 at 2:51 pm |
    • William Demuth


      Jews in both houses peaked at 8.4 percent back in 2008 and is down since then.

      Also Jews are down in the Judicial branch including the Supreme court.

      March 8, 2012 at 3:23 pm |
    • sam

      Don't pay any attention to that first sam, William. He likely sees 'jews' ready to get him at every corner.

      March 8, 2012 at 3:50 pm |
  6. Answer

    There will always be weak people.

    March 8, 2012 at 2:23 pm |
  7. Russ

    How the hell do you get war out of a gift of a book? I will tell you though, RELIGION IS THE ROOT OF ALL EVIL!! It is so hard to believe that so many people claim to be religious just because they're afraid to admint they are not. Most of you that claim to be rieligious seldom go to church and if you do you leave it behind at the door when you leave. I for one, don't have to go through life pertending I believe in a magical man in the sky or a book of fiction. I don't have to pray all the time to no avail. Look what it did for the people in the mid west recently. Or was that God's revenge for something. I know you all will say it's was all part of God's plan. BS!!! Makes my life a whole lot simplier. And I will see you all buried in the dirt right next to me in the end.....no heaven, no hell so get over it.

    March 8, 2012 at 2:20 pm |
    • svscnn

      Did you even read the article? Whether you're religious or not, the "message" that Netanyahu is intending for President Obama with this book is OBVIOUS.


      March 8, 2012 at 2:26 pm |
    • Sasquatch

      Your stupidity is blinding.

      March 8, 2012 at 2:53 pm |
    • Thinker23

      Every human being with a functioning brain believes in SOMETHING including YOU.

      March 8, 2012 at 2:59 pm |
  8. sam

    I don't think Obama needs to drink anything. He already can't tell the difference between friends and enemies!

    March 8, 2012 at 2:20 pm |
    • Danny


      March 8, 2012 at 2:53 pm |
    • Sasquatch

      Its pretty clear what side you are on.

      March 8, 2012 at 2:54 pm |
    • sam

      How the hell many sam's are there on here? Quit saying dumb shit.

      March 8, 2012 at 3:19 pm |
    • Sam's Uncle

      obviously, boy , you had way too much already. You are grounded...

      April 18, 2012 at 3:43 pm |
  9. svscnn

    Netanyahu is coming across more and more like a pit-bull straining against his chain these days.

    What he needs is a good belly-rub before he bites someone and gets his master into trouble with the law.

    Down boy.

    March 8, 2012 at 2:20 pm |
  10. Nancy

    Interesting how you've reported that there is not mention of God – but that the Jews handled the situation as they saw fit. Maybe you had better actually read the book of Eshter where it says they FASTED AND PRAYED, or maybe you believe they fasted and prayed to someone other than God?

    March 8, 2012 at 2:15 pm |
  11. michaelO

    obama brings NOTHING to this issue – no experience, no wisdom, no common sense – leave it up to obama and you would have the jews begging for a socialist state.

    March 8, 2012 at 2:14 pm |
    • filthburger

      I know you have some mental issues, but socialism is better for most people that capitals. Look at how much experience the Bush administration had and look at the state of affairs they left the country and world in after 8 years of scr3wuppery. Obama is awesome. way better than anyone YOU will vote for. lol.

      March 8, 2012 at 2:22 pm |
    • Danny

      WOW!! Speaking of 'mental issues'.... What a fool!!!!

      March 8, 2012 at 2:55 pm |
    • Sasquatch

      Another six year old.
      Go play in the sandbox.

      March 8, 2012 at 2:56 pm |
    • Thinker23

      The Jews already HAVE a state they've shaped to their liking.

      March 8, 2012 at 3:01 pm |
    • Sam's Uncle

      OH, Obama has no experience? Name any, any other eligible American who has more 'presidential' experience!!
      George W, 4 extra years, what a mess, not eligible.
      Romney, Gingrich, Paul, Santorum, Palin (the most experienced part time Alaska governor in the world... None of them have been there or have that one-of-a-kind experience. They would be all newcomers to the job and do on the job training. Fortunately, it won't come to that.

      April 18, 2012 at 3:47 pm |
    • Sam's Uncle

      jews begging for a socialist state?
      You realize that many socialist traditions are part of modern Israel? And I thought it was Obama, the Socialist, who is threatening people like you. If Jews were to beg for a socialist state it's only because Netanyahu is so far to the right that Israelis are sick of it and want to get back more to the middle.

      April 18, 2012 at 3:51 pm |
  12. DavidJeves

    God said: I will bless those that bless my people (Israel) and I will curse them that curse my people. Simple enough to understand; even for a child.

    March 8, 2012 at 2:10 pm |
    • The Central Scrutinizer

      God said, " "

      March 8, 2012 at 2:15 pm |
    • sam

      I think you meant simple MINDED.

      March 8, 2012 at 2:22 pm |
    • Nick San Diego

      Thats in the Old Testament,
      The Jews broke the Convenant with God, when he sent his Son Jesus and they rejected him.
      simple as that.

      March 8, 2012 at 2:23 pm |
    • filthburger

      When did God say that? who did he say it to? some guy who was out in the desert for 40 days and nights drinking stagnant rain water and eating bugs? maybe a little heat stroke? yeah, i'm sure. he was a prophet. lol. time to grow up and stop believing fairy tales and look at some facts.

      March 8, 2012 at 2:24 pm |
    • Danny

      Yes, please....Let's look at some 'facts'.....FACT: Filthburger is truly an ignorant fool! FACT: I feel dumber for having read your posts! FACT: If you haven't caught on by now, there's ZERO hope for you...good luck!

      March 8, 2012 at 2:59 pm |
    • Sam's Uncle

      Whose god said what? Did you hear what the other god said, that was funny too.
      The Zeus clan had something to say about that too: too much metaxa and you get a headache..

      Shiva said: on the hand , yes, but on the other hand, no, that doesn't work, and on my third hand, well, let's keep discussing it a bit longer...

      April 18, 2012 at 3:56 pm |
  13. hello

    "Will he listen to Republican presidential candidates who are beating the drums of war?"

    if youre going to write opinion articles towards an agenda, make it a little less obvious.

    could have saved space & time and just wrote "go obama. eff republicans. and uhhhhh yea still no conclusive CLUE about the middle east. the end"

    March 8, 2012 at 2:06 pm |
  14. DavidJeves

    Iran is threatening to wipe Israel off the map. I guess you mean they should just sit there and wait for the nuclear missiles to arrive? That is not a difficult decision that needs to be made!!

    March 8, 2012 at 2:06 pm |
    • William Demuth

      U so sure?

      Look pretty foolish if your planes don't make it back.

      Look even stupider if they ALREADY have nukes

      March 8, 2012 at 2:10 pm |
    • Nick San Diego

      Well how about Israel does what it wants and keep us out of it.
      we already lost enough American blood in Iraq for them. Stop giving them my Tax $$$ too. Bunch of INGRATES.

      March 8, 2012 at 2:25 pm |
    • filthburger

      Iran threatens the US as well. the amount of conventional bombs we have trained on Iran now will turn the place into glass, not even counting the nuclear, or nucular, depending on your party affiliation. Realistically, Iran is posturing. nothing more. nothing less. If they nuke Israel, Iran will be demolished, and don't think the leaders of that country don't know that.

      March 8, 2012 at 2:27 pm |
  15. Joe B

    Martin Luther wanted to throw this book out of the Bible. Israel and Iran are like two little kids taunting each other in a schoolyard game however the people who die will be very real.

    March 8, 2012 at 2:05 pm |
  16. Ringo65

    Who cares what Obama thinks? Israel has to deal with it's own existence, not the price of oil. Unlike the US, Israel understands that it's future cannot be dependent on any other country, otherwise, it would have been wiped off the map years ago. It isn't arrogance, it's pragmatism. Anyone here think the Middle East will be better off without the only Democratic society around? Look at Egypt, Libya, Yemen, Syria Iraq, Iran. Great templates for a stable oil price. Muslim society is basically a Cult of Death and misogyny, fueled by weapons.

    March 8, 2012 at 2:04 pm |
    • Geoff

      what Pres. Obama thinks is crucial my compadre. Are you accustomed to keeping your head in the sand like an ostrich?

      March 8, 2012 at 2:22 pm |
    • sam

      Rather a silly statement, considering that without the U.S. behind them, Israelis would be swept into the sea.

      March 8, 2012 at 2:25 pm |
  17. shyboy69

    Why do we always tout Israel as this uber-important ally? It's a small country. The only reason I can muster is that American Jews are wealthy and influtential. It is THEM and not really Israel that politicians are trying to court. Either way, it doesn't serve the vast majority of Americans to be fighting Israel's wars. As a Christian I am told to love the Jews (and be punished for not), but I have never seen anything but selfishness from them and antipathy toward Christians. I think they see American Christians as useful idiots.

    March 8, 2012 at 2:04 pm |
    • Genesis

      Amen brother!

      March 8, 2012 at 2:28 pm |
    • filthburger

      there is some accuracy to what you say.

      March 8, 2012 at 2:29 pm |
    • Muneef

      You mean acting like the shields of their swords....!

      March 8, 2012 at 2:38 pm |
    • Pepe

      Any christian is a useful idiot

      March 8, 2012 at 2:40 pm |
  18. Matt

    Or just maybe..... he got the book this week, the week that Purim takes place.

    March 8, 2012 at 2:04 pm |
  19. Jason

    You may want to read the book of Esther for yourself before taking this author at his word (i.e., what he has written). He has no true understanding of the Word of God. He is a non-believer who is deaf to the true meaning of the Bible. A religious scholar is truly neither both, he isn't religious and the texts he studies he can never truy understand.

    March 8, 2012 at 2:04 pm |
    • J

      Have you read it? Because the author summarized it quite well.

      March 8, 2012 at 2:11 pm |
  20. BigSir

    I hate what this self-righteous a$%h*^e and his country(Israel) are doing to bring down the US

    March 8, 2012 at 2:03 pm |
    • Geoff

      even a chimpanzee like BigSir thinks ill of Israel.

      March 8, 2012 at 2:20 pm |
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